What does “clean energy” really mean?

This week, President Obama delivered a State of the Union Address that reminded us that America is a nation of innovation, whose people find strength and unity in the face of monumental challenges.

And today we have plenty of challenges for our energy policy to pick from: fiscal uncertainty, fossil fuel dependency, and lean budgets to name a few.

The President asked Americans to confront these challenges by turning our nation’s energy economy away from its dirty past. By investing in technology innovation, eliminating market distortions, and setting market standards we can make clean energy the profitable kind of energy.  As the President said, “We’ll invest in…clean energy technology—an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

But the question that I came away with was what does “clean” really mean?

Nothing is free in today’s marketplace of ideas – without the type of directed action the President proposed, American companies will fall further and further off the global pace in developing clean energy technologies.  Critics pan this approach as code for spending, but such statements fail to grasp what’s at stake -- a leading share of the $2.5 trillion global clean energy economy.

Tomorrow’s technologies should be supported with money we are providing today to big fossil fuel companies that do not need it. Even in this economy, they remain some of the most profitable companies in the world. Eliminating $4 billion worth of these obsolete tax breaks, as the President proposed, would free up scarce funds needed to jumpstart the engine of creativity in American clean energy research, development and commercialization firms by sending clear market signals.

In his speech, the President proposed a “Clean Energy Standard” (CES) market standard to drive private utility investment in non-polluting sources of energy.  This proposal would require a doubling of the production of electricity from “clean” sources to 80% over the next 25 years. This proposal mimics the familiar renewable electricity standard (RES) but unlike an RES, it proposes to include fossil energy resources with proven technological and public safety risks such as “clean coal”, nuclear, and natural gas. This proposal is troubling, for three reasons.

First, creating energy by burning fossil fuels of any type is anything but clean.  As we have reported before, natural gas is a fossil fuel and already contributes about 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, natural gas is at best only 50% cleaner than coal.  And committing to “clean coal” relies on unproven technologies that will only capture a portion of the harmful air pollutants unlocked into the atmosphere when coal burns.

Moreover, any fuel included in a “clean energy standard” should be evaluated on a lifecycle basis that includes the emissions and damage from extraction, drilling, and transport in addition to combustion.  Gas drilling and coal mining have huge implications for emissions and impacts on affected lands that are a part of our natural heritage.  While natural gas may be cleaner burning than other fossil fuels, the processing, infrastructure, and burning of natural gas releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Congressional Research Service has found that methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure are the third largest source of methane – anything but clean.   And coal’s impacts on wildlife habitats, water quality and the landscape are well-documented

Much of the above also applies to burning biomass.  Unlike other renewable sources of energy, biomass involves burning carbon, and if the source is not true waste, it can exacerbate our carbon emissions problem for decades even if those emissions are eventually absorbed by new tree growth.  Biomass should qualify for the CES only if it is found to reduce, not exacerbate, the threat of climate disruption.

Finally, we need to ask why we should include technologies that not only are not clean, but are also not disadvantaged by the current marketplace.  The expanded use of natural gas does not need the artificial  boost of a ”clean energy standard” designation, and its inclusion could very well defeat the faster utilization of truly clean energy technologies.

What the country needs to move forward are real clean energy solutions - done right.  President Obama said that we cannot move forward with the government of the past – and we cannot hope to compete in the global energy economy with the energy sources of our grandparents and great-grandparents.